How Not to Write a Cover Letter
On a break between moving gigs the other week, I came upon a piece of graffiti in Bushwick that said EVERY EFFORT IS BEAUTIFUL. Which is a rosy strain of bullshit, the kind of thing a Millennial shouts from a rooftop before skipping back to The New School. Anyone who’s ever air-balled a layup, or tried her hand at writing, or fumbled for the right words or parts in the dark knows that by and large, human beings are hideous effort mills. Beauty is the exception, not the rule.
For proof, look no further than my special brand of cover letter, each one painstakingly coated in a thick sheen of job repellant. (My industrial-strength lacquer smells of desperation and Maker’s Mark.) There must exist a vast and happy tonal medium between Professional and Creative, but I live on the edges. I will stick to the script for months, Googling templates and muzzling voice, my submissions as flat and mechanical as the ensuing rejections.
Then, feeling hopeless and creatively stifled, I’ll swing violently in the other direction, flinging a goulash of literary tricks at the page with all the subtlety of a backyard magician: Alliteration! Puns! Excessive Capitalization! What sticks (I cut nothing; it’s all too brilliant) is the verbal equivalent of purple Gak, but in the moment I’m sure it will separate me from the gutless cookie-cutter conformists. Presto change-o, I’m qualified.
The seeds of flowery hara-kiri were planted way back in college, during my sophomore year. Eager to stand out in my transfer application to James Madison University, I wrote a rhyming one-page statement—a “poem” which was later rejected by the school literary journal. This full-body cringe begins “I’ve been given one page to step on stage and steal the show,” and drags on painfully in that vein for almost 700 words:
…One page to paint myself with such lush colors that you swear I swing a brush like none other… One page to pave the road to all my ambitions with words so smoothly written that the paper becomes smitten… One page to pocket my pride, go out on a limb, and give it the old college try…
Whenever I’m hungover but can’t throw up, I just read that statement aloud until saliva pools in my mouth. I’ve never made it past the third line.
I was accepted to JMU in spite of that blot, but for years considered it (and not my 3.8 GPA) the clincher, my ace in the hole. Every so often a pal or someone’s mother would forward me a letter like this, and I’d nod my head in sage recognition. That’s how it’s done, I’d say. Gotta paint yourself with such lush colors that they swear you swing a brush like none other.
Getting an MFA in Creative Writing didn’t exactly curb this urge; neither did the professional famine that followed. I wear my hunger on my sleeve, job-lust clawing its way into lines like, “I would kill to be a Production Assistant at the studio that gave us Ice Age and Rio” (Blue Sky, 2011). There are clumsy stabs at humor: “I am allergic to jargon and penicillin, but I can assure you the latter won’t affect my work” (Georgia Organics, 2012). Applying for teaching jobs, I’ll link to my RateMyProfessors and Koofers pages, qualifying the latter with “whatever that [site] is, and for whatever that is worth.” Self-destruction by self-deprecation. Botch, wince, repeat.
Last fall—new to New York, and in a weird place—I inflicted upon the publishing world an especially grating letter in which I referred to myself as a “Jedi of General Assistance” and said that I was “as reliable as a Ford Ranger, and twice as beige.” In one instance I was unfortunately able to get this letter in the hands of the person doing the hiring. A few hours later, I received this response:
Thank you so much for your interest—and thank you so much for NOT playing it safe in your cover letter. And I mean that with all seriousness. I get so tired of these bland cover letters that reveal nothing. Unfortunately, I can tell from your letter that we would not be a great fit. We have very different senses of humor. But I have a strong one too, and I appreciate others with strong senses of humor. May you find someone who gets your humor and delights in it.
I wish you all the best!
(Six minutes after that, my dad—re: an unrelated 70-cents-a-page transcription job I’d landed—emailed from his AOL account in giant Dad font: “Congrats on the part-time job; might be the gateway to success you never imagined!”)
I immediately tweeted the line about finding someone who gets my humor and delights in it, which garnered more stars than most of my zingers. But I didn’t (and don’t) bristle at that reply; I found it funny and oddly touching—encouraging even. (Writers take twisted comfort in personalized rejection.) After all, she thanked me for not playing it safe, evoking not a cover letter failure, but a cover letter rebel.
So like Tobias Fünke talking himself into an open marriage (“…but maybe it will work for us”), I convinced myself that I didn’t need to stop writing weird cover letters; I just needed to write better ones: smarter, stronger, funnier, weirder.
The resulting letter to publishing house FSG (submitted on April Fool’s Day, which I thought was cute) didn’t even warrant a response. Given their icy silence and my laughable track record, it’s probably leprotic, a stellar stinking example of How Not to Write a Cover Letter. You and certainly I would be wise to take it as such.
But word on the street is, some kid in Bushwick thinks it’s beautiful.
April 1, 2014
Dear Sir or Madam,
Ahoy! I’m writing because I think I would be a perfect fit for FSG’s vacant editorial assistant position. Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft is one of the world’s premiere shipbuilders, and it would be nothing short of an honor to join the team that launched classic vessels like the mighty Doris Broderson and the revolutionary ro-ro Pauline.
Though I have little-to-no work experience in the shipbuilding industry, I’m a bit of a “boathead,” as my fellow summer (2010) interns and superiors at Adult Swim could tell you. When I wasn’t coordinating talent and production, tracking submissions, handling sensitive materials such as contracts and scripts, and carrying out myriad administrative tasks, I was watching cartoons. But when I wasn’t watching cartoons, I was Google Imaging boats and asking my fellow interns, “Man, how the heck do they build these things?”
From 2008 to 2011—while an award-winning teaching fellow in Georgia College’s MFA Creative Writing program, editing the literary journal Arts & Letters as well as students’ and peers’ work—I often found myself daydreaming of scattering my kids’ essays into the sea, stealing a boat, and setting sail across the Atlantic, never to return. In May of 2011, on a backpacking trip across Europe, I took a ferry from the southern coast of England to the northern tip of France. Coincidence?
Since its inception in 2011, I have been instrumental in keeping the online literary magazine Trop afloat and fostering an “all-hands-on-deck” approach. I write, edit, proofread, promote, evaluate submissions, and coordinate with publicists and authors—including those at celebrated New York publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux (FSG). Some might call me the anchor of the operation—
Oh, who am I kidding? What I know about shipbuilding couldn’t fill a shot glass. It’s obvious that my true passion is books. But then… They’re not so different, books and boats. A good book is sturdy, well-made, equal parts practical and pleasing to the eye. A good book can whisk you away. A hell of a lot of work goes into a good book.
I guess what I’m trying to say is: I will work as hard for your ships as I would for FSG’s books. By which I mean, ridiculously hard.
Thank you for your consideration. Please contact me to arrange an interview.
P.S. Willing to relocate from Brooklyn to Flensburg.